Monday, February 18, 2019

Zebre-24 Leinster-40

One of the many things we love about rugby union is that nothing is ever as it seems to the ‘casual’ observer.  Like the way a rugby ball looks like it should bounce one way yet instead fires off in the completely opposite direction.  Pretty much everything about Saturday's match proves this point perfectly. 

Like the way you'd think Zebre would play in Parma yet this was staged in Viadana at the home of their predecessors at this level of Italian rugby, Aironi. 

Like the way you'd think a team named after a black and white striped animal would have an easy choice of design for their home kit, yet for some reason it is resplendent with multiple colours. 

Like the way you'd think the broadcast of a rugby match would be mostly about watching the actual live action as it happens on the pitch, yet at different points throughout, the director seems so interested in showing replays and good-looking women in the crowd that viewers actually miss some of the action. 

Like the way you'd think the reigning double-winning champions, leading their conference by 21 points against a team rock bottom of their own, fancied by the bookies to win by 21 points, and leading after 21 minutes by 21 points, would go on to produce a ‘cricket score’, yet the home side actually proceeded to ‘win’ the last three quarters. 

Like the way you'd expect a Leinster-centric blogger to lean in towards one extreme in his writeup, either offering heavy criticism for the way we allowed our hosts to stage a comeback as they did, or ignoring it altogether and putting the emphasis on well-worn clichés like “a win is a win”.  Well, call it a cop out all you want, but I see this roller-coaster of an 80-minutes as “all of the above”. 

Speaking of hunting for narratives, all the talk going into this one was about ‘how will Leinster play after being off for three weeks?’ as if somehow it affected only us. But after the opening quarter it looked as though all the boys in blue had done during the break was play rugby together. 

Literally from the start we were connecting as Ross Byrne's kickoff was caught by his namesake Adam, and when we had our first attacking lineout after 5 minutes, a throw to the back was caught by skipper Scott Fardy, the Zebre jumpers couldn't recover in time to stop our well-formed maul, and hey presto Max Deegan fell over the line to put us on the board. 

Then we started to see Conor O’Brien showing what he can bring to this level of rugby and probably higher.   Even in the minimum of space he can fight his way past a gain line, but when a set move affords him green grass ahead, his strong, upright style of running can be devastating and after helping us march back towards the Zebre 22,  when Dave Kearney got a chance to accelerate through a gap he took it and there was our second try. 

Our third might have been a tad fortunate, as Max Deegan seems to have blocked Renton as Ross Byrne ran around to score, but let's just say the Zebre 9 didn't do much to sell his indignation and the TMO upheld the referee's decision to award it.  In any case, there was still penalty advantage coming and Barry Daly had just come close in the corner, so it seemed a 21-0 margin was inevitable at that point. 

But before we look ahead to the spirited riposte by the Italians, let us first look back at their earlier attacks, because even then it was clear that Michael Bradley and his fellow coaches had them prepared to punch above their assumed weight. 

They had one move in particular where their 9 Renton feigned to pass out to the backs yet instead popped one inside to a runner that nearly worked, only the offload to outhalf Carlo Canna was dropped with the line at his mercy; that would have made it 7-7 so who knows how the match would have gone from there. 

Yet still with us seemingly out of sight, they didn't take that option off the table and it eventually worked to get them deep into our 22 and off an attacking scrum their number 8 Licata brought it towards the line where an offload to full back Brummer got it the rest of the way. 

We have a good reputation for hitting back soon after conceding, but on our next attacking opportunity, rather than going for the Conor O’Brien crash ball again, we tried an option that had him passing to his fellow centre Rory O’Loughlin who was sat deep with two back three players outside him. 

Overall I think Rory had a poor afternoon by his standards, but what happened here wasn't really his fault. The swarming Zebre defence meant this play was never on; O’Brien's pass fell way short and remember what I said earlier about the bouncing rugby ball? Well here it did for O’Loughlin and fell perfectly for Jamie Elliott who showed Adam Byrne a clean pair of heels sprinting to the line. 

So that was two tries back, but the third was the most worrying of all.  The official match stats credit us with 6 wins from 6 at scrums and while this is technically true, a massive shove from the Zebre pack, on our put in and with our all-test front row involved, put us under so much pressure that Adam Byrne got isolated trying to tidy, giving the home side a penalty that led to a lineout in our 22.   

From there our famed defensive structures were made look very ordinary after the lineout (neither Daly nor Kearney will be happy with their tackle attempts) as Di Giulio went over in the far corner, and only for Canna being unable to convert from the touchline, the comeback would have been complete. 

Even in arguably our favourite time of the match to find a score, namely the closing stages of the first half, we couldn't rediscover the attacking mojo from earlier, and we nearly went into the break behind on the scoreboard when Canna had a drop goal attempt blocked. 

'But this is only a blip, right?',  we'd be forgiven for thinking.  'Some tweaks here and there in the dressing room will sort out what went wrong towards the end of that half, right? We'll definitely get the next score and then coast home to the margin everyone expected as the game kicked off, right?'

Well, almost right. We did fix a lot of our issues, particularly on defence, but a couple more were emerging, like scrappy lineouts on our own throw plus we were shipping penalties. 

It got to a stage where we probably needed a bit of luck and shortly after we switched our entire front row (more than likely scheduled to be fair), during phases on their line Bryan Byrne lost the ball in a tackle yet it went perfectly ‘flat’ to Jamison Gibson-Park who was quick to first send us towards the posts before a jinking run against the grain by Ross Byrne created the chance for his 9 to find Fardy on his own out wide to clinch us the try bonus at very least. 

After working so hard to stay in touch with us, why should Zebre give up the ghost now? There was also a bit of flatness about a pass on the way to their surging right back into our 22 but still they showed great self-belief to knock us back on our heels and a couple of penalties later, Canna found Brummer wide open to secure his second and his team's own bonus point try. 

But while we were once again level on tries, the Zebre 10 again missed the extras so now our lead was four, and for all the negatives to be found in this Leinster display, they go hiding in the final 15 minutes where I felt we really found an extra gear, particularly on defence. 

Ross Molony flew below the radar throughout the match yet I reckon he was our best player (the MotM award actually went to Gibson-Park) as he led the tackle charts with 23 on an afternoon when we needed every one.  And his team-mates backed him up well as Zebre had a wonderful chance to nip ahead as the clock ticked past the 70m mark. 

Given another lineout deep in our 22, they began churning through the phases and one challenge by Gibson-Park in particular highlighted our revised approach without the ball.  Upon hitting a carrier to stop him, our scrum half backed away to stand up for the ensuing breakdown and this policy kept our 15-man cordon pretty much intact for the onslaught before eventually there was a knockon. 

But our work wasn't done, even when we earned a penalty at the ensuing scrum.  The lineout still had to be won and we cleverly employed a move Leinster & Ireland teams rarely go to (hooker > prop at front of lineout > back to hooker) which secured possession, and then the clearing box kick was well claimed by Dave Kearney - now we have them on the back foot in their own half. 

From here we simply were not letting up with all of our bench blending well as phase after phase got us deep into their 22 before the space was created for Reid who could have scored himself but instead shipped it to Conor O’Brien for try number 5. 

That score would have knocked the wind out of any team on the planet so it was no surprise when strong running from Reid and Fardy on our next possession got us back within striking distance before a Hugh O’Sullivan snipe brought it as far as the line before Max Deegan provided some symmetry to the scoring by getting the final try of the day to add to his first. 

I'll be honest - as I watched this match live I was so disappointed by the middle portion that I didn't fully appreciate how well we did in the closing stages until the second watch, so maybe I was guilty of being one of the ‘casual observers’ I referenced back at the start.  Still, such are the standards set by Leo Cullen's Leinster that we've been conditioned not to be happy with any portion of a match not going our way. 

Besides; if we harp too much on how badly we did, it would take away from the exploits of the home side, who like I said earlier clearly had their homework done.  And also credit to Italian rugby in general for making an effort to generate interest by staging this match as part of a double header with a big club clash that took place afterwards. With Benetton defeating Scarlets to stay in the playoff picture later that day, the game seems to be progressing there better than many let on. 

One extra point I'll make about this particular win; for me it demonstrates that the try bonus point system they now use in both Top 14 and Super Rugby is better than the one we're used to.  Right now we use what I call the ‘quantitative bonus’ whereby you earn by scoring four or more, as a opposed to the ‘differential bonus’ which means you must score three more than your opponents, meaning if you don't pay mind to defence its a point that can be lost during 80 minutes as well as being earned. 

But that's just a bit of nit picking on my part; even if we didn't perhaps 'deserve' a fifth match point, overall we did more enough to earn the win, and even the flattering 16-point margin can serve as tribute to our bench. 

And when it comes to margins, for me it's much more important to look at our lead atop Conference B which has now been extended to a whopping 22 points, with the gap in the ‘points difference’ column now a bizarre 242. Given all of the top five on the table are at home next weekend, it's unlikely we'll clinch top spot, but the fact that it's actually mathematically possible at the end of February is something in itself. 

Hopefully we can look ahead to Friday's visit of the Southern Kings with a nuanced outlook because for this perfectly imperfect game in particular, that's the only way to do it. JLP 

Later this week; 80-word reviews on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday then it's the telly post on Thursday before we start looking ahead to busy weekend for a blog dedicated to both Leinster & Ireland rugby, with of course Front Five every morning. Do stay tuned!

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019